Monday, 28 July 2014

Random musings

My other half arrived in Suva around six months before Anna and I joined him. During our frequent Skype conversations I used to ask what it was like living in Suva to which there would be some mental and verbal cogitating before an unsatisfactory “I’m not really sure” or similar would be uttered. I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t frustrated at the time by the lack of a one word answer - “awesome” or “amazing” or even “meh” would have been preferable. However, now that I’m asked that pretty frequently by people contacting me through the blog I understand his inability to answer this question precisely.

I heard Suva described as a ‘Melanesian New York’ in a song recently.  That might sound like a bit of a stretch, but relative to the rest of the South Pacific, it is a megatropolis. And like all ‘big’ cities, it can be frustrating. It can be delightful. But the fascinating thing is how quickly what at first appears strange and exotic becomes ordinary and routine. I can go for days now without even remembering that I’m in a country that’s not my own. Of course, this could be because I haven’t lived in my own country for well over two decades. Or it might be a sign that I’m getting into a rut. But the most likely explanation is that I’m just a little dense.

However, there are a couple of thing that I cannot get used to – things I don’t want to get used to. Things that are like a slap in the face with a wet walu when I encounter them. Like the way animals are treated here. And I’m not just talking about the locals. We’ve rescued ten cats while we lived here and that doesn’t include the one that sneaks into the house occasionally to steal kibble. Nine of these cats descend from just one unspayed female owned by an expat who, when he left the neighbourhood, took his two male cats with him, leaving poor pregnant Goldie behind.  Some of her offspring were already roaming the neighbourhood by the time we inherited her, including a lovely female who had been adopted by another expat family in the neighbourhood – and left behind unspayed and pregnant when they moved as well.

Seriously – what is wrong with you people? Granted the SPCA doesn’t always have a vet in house, but they usually do – and spaying and neutering are not expensive. And don’t get me started on dog owners. When we lived in the Caribbean, there were canines charmingly known as ‘dumpster dogs’. These were generally a docile group what all sort of looked like…well, like “dog”. Black and brown and medium-sized these animals had obviously been self-perpetuating until they reverted to a canine variety that I imagine the original pooch looked like around a Neanderthal’s campfire. The packs of feral dogs roaming around Suva, on the other hand, look like a motley group of mutts of all different types, some of which are obviously abandoned pets.  And occasionally you come across a dog that you think is dead or at least should be dead – eyes infected, covered in mange and festering wounds. For these dogs I usually carry around a tin of meat with a pull-top lid. However, reflecting the futility of this, I now think that I should carry around a lethal injection instead.

Life is a lot less stressful if you're not having constant litters of kittens.
Another source of irritation is the term ‘housegirl’ used by many people here, including those that are employed at vast expense by UN-type agencies to address issues such as women’s equality. Now I’m old enough to remember the 1970s, a time when as one writer put it, ‘calling a woman a girl was like spitting in her face’. I am not a rabid feminist, but language is a powerful thing. To call a grown woman a girl in relation to her employment is to infer that she is not capable of being responsible for herself or others. That ultimately, she is a child. When a western expatriate in a developing country uses the term ‘housegirl’ to describe someone in their employment, it’s not only inappropriate, it’s inexcusable.

Recently we’ve come out of the other side of a dengue fever epidemic. Dengue is one of those neglected tropical diseases that are neglected because they only affect one billion or so people or so. Did I mention that they are the one billion poorest people on the planet? Dengue is a mosquito-borne virus that leads to a flu-like illness that can become haemorrhagic and lethal. It’s a scary illness with no real effective treatment or vaccination. The advice from healthcare professionals was alarming – take Panadol and drink plenty of fluids and go to the hospital if you start bleeding out of any of your orifices (including your pores).

Save your paranoia for mosquitoes, not sharks.
John and I have both had it after Hurricane Hugo in St Croix in the USVI when the mosquito population boomed in all of the post-storm standing water. The problem with dengue is that there are several serotypes and while you may gain immunity to one serotype, you can become more susceptible to serious complication if you contract the other types. Not knowing which serotype we had made me ultra-paranoid. Not to mention that I didn’t want to have to check anyone’s orifices if they got ill (including my own). I had aerosol and roll-on versions of DEET everywhere – in my handbag, at work, in the car. I gave out cans of Aerogard to visitors, told tourists at resort to spray themselves and sent Anna into school with multiple cans to leave in the common room. While others were complaining about how horrible the mass spraying in our neighbourhood to kill mosquito larvae was, I was transported to my happy suburban childhood by the smell of malathion which my dad used to spray liberally on the roses and we Californians were subjected to via aerial spraying to control the Mediterranean fruit fly in the early 1980s. Hmmmm organophosphates – the smell of summer!

When I’m not getting worked up about women and animal rights or the priorities of big pharmaceutical companies, I do occasionally get out and enjoy myself. Recently a friend and I went to the Crest Chicken Sulu Jamba Competition. We were the only kaivalagi there except one of the judges, which was a shame as it was a great afternoon out. It was serious but the mood was light-hearted with amazing designs of the traditional shirt/skirt combination modelled by women of all shapes and sizes. There was also entertainment, quizzes with prizes (mostly frozen chickens) and free ice cream. It was one of those quirky things that keeps living in this city interesting.

Rusila showing off her amazing sulu jamba skills
We are experiencing a well-recognised phenomenon where no one visits you for a long period of time then you get numerous sets of visitors– some overlapping - over a couple of months. Not that I’m complaining. Our first visitor was a niece who had been volunteering with GVI (and loved it) and spent her last couple of days in Fiji with us in Suva. We played tourist, finally going to the Fiji Museum (I had been saving that for a very rainy day). But most spectacular of all, we went up to Takalana for the day. It’s pretty much exactly a two-hour drive from Suva (if you drive like a Fijian taxi driver, probably a bit longer for the rest of us). The weather was rubbish, but the black sand beach was stunning. After a short bumpy boat-ride we were at Moon Reef enjoying the company of its resident pod of spinner dolphin. Because they are protected, you cannot get into the water with them, but they are totally engaging anyway. Back at the resort, they served us a decent lunch. It was a wonderful day and I’m just sorry that we hadn't done it before.

And with all of these visitors, we’ll be able to tick a few more things to do off of our Fiji list. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Suva – A Beginner’s Guide

Suva, our home for the last couple of years, was obviously chosen as the capital of Fiji because of its naturally deep harbour rather than its white sandy beaches (of which there are none) or beautiful weather (it’s in a notorious rain shadow). This lack of stereotypical tropical accouterments sometimes has us scratching our incredibly sweaty brow and asking ourselves “What the hell are we doing here?” Generally this pondering peters out inconclusively after a large gin and tonic (or two).

You can usually pick out the newly arrived expats by their pale skin, numerous bright red mosquito bites and slightly alarmed, confused looks. Here are a few of the things that I have learned since I was in that vulnerable state what seems like such a long time ago.

1. Fiji is far away from (almost) everywhere.

The first clue about how far away Fiji was from anywhere should have been when someone pointed out that Fiji appeared on the edges of both sides of the map hanging up in our UK dining room – literally at the end of the world, twice over.

Our second clue was that it took five days to travel from our little village in the North East of England to Fiji due to multiple Pacific typhoons. There can’t be many families that can say that the only time they were in New Zealand was for a day trip.

People that come to visit us from the UK have to be very committed considering the expense of the tickets and the fact that travel time is around 30 hours each way. That’s a lot of your vacation time spent sitting on airplanes and in airports before you've even got anywhere. Mind you, when you arrive, it’s pretty awesome.

The exception to the faraway rule is for New Zealand and Australia, which explains the plethora of Kiwi and Aussie expats here.

2. It’s hot in Fiji.

One of my abiding memories of living in the Caribbean was the total change of atmosphere when the plane doors opened on arrival from northern climes. Arriving at Nausori Airport, in our damp little corner of Fiji, the sensation is more like entering a steamy sauna than opening a West Indian oven door.

I've had to get over my sweat phobia and my eco-reluctance to put on the air conditioning to survive here. The great thing is that the humidity and rain is often localised to Suva which means that you can get on a boat or a taxi and escape to typical tropical paradise without too much effort.

Too hot? Stick your face in the water! (Full disclosure - this photo was taken in the Yasawas)

Just existing in this heat can be exhausting. There’s a term used locally by expats – tropical torpor – which describes a state of inertia that one occasionally sinks into here. Any effort to be productive is scuppered by the sensation that you’re wearing a lead-lined suit and existing in an atmosphere made up of mostly molasses. The best cure for tropical torpor is to turn the air con or ceiling fan on high and spend a weekend on the sofa napping and watching an entire series of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or similar which you bought from the local DVD shop for FJ$5.00.

3. It is 99% certain you will not get a job as a trailing spouse in Fiji.

I’d never heard the term trailing spouse until we started our preparations for moving to Fiji. Everything about it is ugly, from being defined by your relationship, to the implication that you’re trotting along (or being dragged) behind your partner as they engage in worthy employment.

Immigration laws here mean that getting a job once you've arrived with your employed spouse will be next to impossible. Volunteering opportunities are also extremely limited due to the same visa restrictions. Having said that, there are plenty of people in the same boat so friend groups form quickly and the days become inexplicably busy.

This can be a real eye-opener if, like me, you get to the end of your first six months here and you realise that you haven’t even started the great American novel that you told yourself you would write if ever freed from the shackles of gainful employment. Some people do end up getting jobs (I did eventually) but it is the rare exception rather than the rule.

4. The more I know about Fiji, the more complicated it becomes.

Fiji has had a number of coups over the last couple of decades and is currently being run by the military dictatorship that engineered the last one in 2006. Having said that, this isn’t a country of scary armed men and civil unrest. In fact, I feel as safe here as anywhere else I have ever lived. The complexities are subtle - so subtle that until now one could completely ignore them if you wanted to. Elections have been called for September 2014 and while we’re all excited to be in the privileged position to witness the birth of a new democracy, I won’t pretend that it’s not without a bit of trepidation that we’re watching events unfold from front row seats.

5. You can get pretty much everything you need in Suva.

Every few months some poor unsuspecting impending arrival to Suva will post a question about what to bring to Fiji with them in their shipment on the Suva Expat Facebook page. Suva newbies will implore them to bring a lifetime supply of stock cubes, garbage bags and bath mats. This in turn elicits a torrent of responses from old-timers and locals telling everyone to get a grip. The good news (for Americans) is that you can get Skippy peanut butter (Cost u Less) and green enchilada sauce (New World). You can even now get a decent baguette from the Hot Bread Kitchen at Damodar City.

Beats Waitrose hands down.
If you want lashings of gorgonzola and Parma ham, you’re moving to the wrong country. If you want shimmering lumps of sashimi-grade tuna and heaps of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables that are reasonably priced then you’re coming to the right place. Mind you, I'm considering adopting a public display of mourning now that avocado season is over.

There are hardware stores, banks, chemists (pharmacies), schools, three universities, public pools, film festivals, good and cheap public transport, outdoor pursuit clubs, cooking classes, language classes... It’s all there – you just need to know where to look.

The USP campus is pretty darned attractive.
6. You can be happy in Suva.

Despite anything negative I've said in this post, I would never discourage anyone from moving to Suva. Living here has had it challenges, and while we've been forced outside of our comfort limits once or twice (or a hundred times), our time here has been rewarding and exciting.

My Suva Picnic Park - my new favourite place to loiter.
Suva itself is undergoing a transformation – the waterfront part that stretches from Suva Point towards the city centre around the peninsula, My Suva Picnic Park, is a wonderful place to walk and people watch. We've witnessed the resurrection of the Grand Pacific Hotel and anticipate having high tea in grand style when it opens. We’re also getting a Mexican restaurant in the brand new Damodar City complex, which also has a food court, a cinema (the second multiplex in town) and lots of other useful shops. This is an event of intense culinary interest in a city with no Italian, Thai or Vietnamese restaurants.

But it’s the people that make the place. Everyone in Suva has a story to tell – the Fijians and the expats. If you put yourself in the position to listen to them you will find some of the most fascinating people on the planet. Some of them will turn into good friends, others will be passing acquaintances, but each encounter will leave you a little richer than you were before.

Occasionally when I walking down the mean streets of Suva, I get a similar discombobulating sensation to when I’m flying. But instead of “OMG, I’m in a small metal tube, 51000 feet above the ground with no visible means of support!” it’s more like “Am I really existing on a small speck of land in the middle of the Pacific? How weird, because it feels strangely like home.”

Friday, 14 February 2014

Lunch Lessons

When I was a teenager and a frequenter of dining establishments open in the wee hours of the morning, there was a chalkboard in the local Denny’s foyer which stated “You only get three meals a day. Don’t waste them”. I have often pondered this bit of culinary wisdom when contemplating my vacillating waistline and America’s growing obesity problem.

I would rather make a bit of an effort to make myself something delicious for breakfast rather than resorting to toast, which I consider a sad excuse for a meal (unless it’s whole-wheat toast with Hellman’s mayo, avocado and chopped red onion  or similar). For lunch on work days, I usually dine “al desco”, but at least take the time to savour whatever I've made the effort to pack for myself.

When I started my job in Suva, I religiously took my lunch every day. The first day that I left it on the kitchen counter at home, I was stuck. Where would I get my lunch that wasn't too expensive? There’s not an M&S, Waitrose or even Starbucks in sight. The little restaurants dotted around the area of Toorak where I work looked too scary to enter, let alone eat anything out of. That day, I spent my entire lunch hour walking down to Dolphin Food Court to get sushi from the Daikoku. It really is the best take-out sushi I've ever eaten, but it’s a long way to walk and the entire way back is uphill.

The next time I forgot my lunch, I decided to brave one of the local Chinese eateries. I watched the person in front of me in the queue being served an enormous pile of food. When the server turned to me, I asked him to give me a small amount of rice and chicken. He plopped a paddle-full of rice that would have served at least two people into a Styrofoam container. He looked surprised when I stopped him serving me another pile of equal size. He covered the rice in a generous serving of chicken stir-fry and again seemed puzzled when I told him that was all that I wanted. “You want pork?” he asked holding up another ladle full of food. I said no and turned to the register to pay, glancing back, I saw the guy ladling more food into my takeout container. When I asked him what he was doing (politely) he said that obviously I didn't want pork, so I must want lamb.

As I sweatily trudged up the hill back to work with 1.5kg of lunch in a thin plastic bag every bad restaurant-related environmental health story ran through my head until I felt like I was carrying a throbbing bio-bomb. Then something happened that has never happened to me before and hasn't happened to me since – a destitute young man asked me if he could have my lunch.  I was as grateful to give it to him as he was to receive it. To be honest, I pretty much tossed it to him like it was a live grenade.

Fast-forward a couple of months and now I hardly ever take my lunch to work. This is because I have been shown the amazing secrets of Indian fast food. Sometimes I get Indian snacks late morning from the friendly staff at Khana Kazana on Toorak Road. If you haven’t had an idli (a steamed bready thing that looks like a flying saucer that’s been stuffed with a fresh chutney of grated fresh coconut, dhania (cilantro/fresh coriander) and chopped chilli, you should make it a culinary mission. They also make a fried spinach fritter things which are amazing as are their gulgula (little donuts). And it’s so inexpensive that it’s not even worth contemplating making them at home.

 You have to get here after 9am and before lunch if you want to bag an idli.

If I want a proper lunch, I walk down to the Curry House. You have to cross the most dangerous intersection for paedestrians in Suva (the corner of Renwick St and Raojibhai Patel Street) to get there, but it’s worth it for the vegetarian thali (2 veggie curries with 2 rotis) for FJ$4.95. Cleverly origamied in butcher paper and wrapped in a plastic (the local term for a plastic bag) I sprint back up the big hill to work so that I can devour it without even resorting to a fork or spoon (I've become an expert at eating with roti rather than cutlery).

Running the traffic gauntlet to get to the Curry House.

This culinary discovery has piqued my interest in cooking Indian food at home – taking advantage of the amazing seafood and produce at the market to make a more healthy version of what’s available at restaurants and also to prepare me for the sad time when we’ll have to leave Fiji (and the Curry House, Khaza Khazana and my other favourite, Maya Dhaba).

What my Rick Stein book looked like before a cat peed on the book jacket.

Santa brought me a Rick Stein’s India cookbook. I’ve managed to find all of the non-mainstream ingredients that I've needed from Halwai’s Spice World (aka Zealot Agencies aka Halwai’s Spice Castle). I briefly earned the scorn of the proprietor by asking if he sold coriander seed, which I couldn't find in any of the little store-packed plastic bags. “Do I sell coriander seed?” he muttered to himself leading me to a large burlap sack full of coriander seed, which the locals obviously buy in amounts that would take me a lifetime to get through. At that point, a lovely middle-aged Indo-Fijian fellow shopper took my arm and led me through the rest of my shopping list.

The name of this place is lost on me, but it has every Indian Spice imaginable.

It truly is a castle of spice.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of places to eat lunch in Suva – the little deli upstairs at Prouds makes good sandwiches, the food courts at Tappoo and MCHH have a huge amount of choice – noodles, Korean, Fijian, etc…). There’s even a McDonald’s. But by destroying my prejudices about what a restaurant should look like, I have totally expanded my culinary horizons. And for a person in their 50th year that’s been obsessed with food since birth, that’s quite an achievement.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

There’s no place like home...

By mid-December, home was feeling very far away. Worn out by work, emotionally fraught by the death of our hand-raised kitten by a pack of dogs and exhausted by the increasing heat and humidity, I was ready to escape from Suva for a few weeks. Home not only felt far away, it really was far away. While we achieved a three month sea voyage in a mere thirty five hours I cannot recommend it. A younger body can probably withstand being confined in a small space like a battery hen for two 10-11 hour flights in a row, but as I am in my 50th year I can say with complete certainty that it is not a good idea. I made the mistake of grabbing a burrito at the new food court at the international terminal at LAX and eating it as we sat down on our flight to London. I now know what a boa constrictor feels like after it swallows a small goat.

Having been away from the North East of England for sixteen months, my not very surprising conclusions were that it was dark and full of germs. Of course it is also full of some of my favourite people in the entire world and this more than made up for living with heavy colds in a perpetual cycle of dusk and night. For those of you unfamiliar with the Newcastle upon Tyne area, it’s famous for three things: the locals (Geordies) and their imperviousness to the cold (boob tubes and miniskirts at -10c? Really?); their dialect (wye aye, man); and football (Howay the lads!). I love Newcastle for many reasons, including the fact that a women 30 years younger than me ringing up my groceries calls me “pet” without the slightest affectation, that the area continues to undergo a transformative food renaissance and that the surrounding countryside and coastline is full of amazing places with very few people to spoil it.

 Our friend David, the Earth Doctor Baker

Experiencing my first Christmas in the England in the late 1980s, the excess was shocking to me. Any culture where you’re expected to eat a dried fruit and suet pudding which has been drenched in brandy and lightened up with either crème anglaise or double cream after a day of eating canapés and a full turkey dinner is serious about testing the limits of overindulgence and waistbands. And it goes on for days – Christmas starts around the end of the first week of December with parties and ends when everyone feels ill from chronic over-eating and -drinking on the first of January. Of course all resolutions about losing weight are on hold until the last Terry’s Chocolate Orange and wedge of Stilton is gone. I am pleased to say that our 2014 Christmas didn't disappoint – amazing food, wine, wonderful friends and family. How lucky we are to love and get along with our families!

However, it was strange to be home without really being home. The sense of displacement was slightly discombobulating – like the sense of vertigo when you’re standing in the surf and a wave is receding around your ankles. We declined the kind offer from the tenant of our house to come meet her and have a look around as it just sounded too weird. We left feeling like we had only really just begun our visit, already looking forward to and making plans to see everyone again.

Thankfully, we’d plan to break up our trip in California on the way home to see family. Our flight was uneventful except for the bizarre use of the English language by the flight attendant on American Airlines. At one point she said, “Please wait for the captain to extinguish the seatbelt sign before leaving your seats”. Are they on fire? Powered by gaslight? Perhaps we need to stay in our seats while he traipses up and down the aisles with his candle snuffer?
Spudnuts - just one more reason to love the USA

The Santa Barbara weather was like summer and we savoured the cool sunshine, having been warned about the increasing heat and humidity in Suva. Again, there was too much eating and drinking (and shopping in the sales) and before we knew it, it was time to go home, this time to Fiji. Back at LAX, we decided to forego burritos and stick with sushi at the Flying Fish. As an American I was totally embarrassed by the waiting staff there – we want you to serve us food, not form a lifetime bond with you. The final straw was when we paid for our meal. “Ooh, you bank with Wells Fargo too”, she cooed, cuddling my debit card to her cheek. Not only is that inappropriate, it’s unsanitary.
Beachcombing at Gaviota State Park

We were excited to get back to our cats and the new Damodar City complex, which contains an expat-life-changing grocery store (see post about it here). Home feels so much more like home when you can get A1 Steak Sauce, green taco sauce and marshmallow fluff.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Fiji List

New Year, new resolution, and I here I state publicly that in 2014 I will post on my blog at least once a month. I've enjoyed keeping the blog for its diary-like qualities and for the challenge of stringing words together in a pleasing way, but what I didn't expect was the number of people who have contacted me through the blog. Some want to know practical details about living in Fiji because they are arriving imminently.  Some are considering moving to Fiji and want to know the down and dirty on specific aspects of expat life. Then there are the other requests for guest blog posts (not a chance – too busy to write my own blog, thanks very much), a request for an interview for a travel magazine (unfortunately dropped into my inbox during frenzied work activity, so ignored) and a very sweet request to be interviewed as part of a student project (Clay & Co - you know who you are!).

When I first arrived in Suva I observed that the happiest expats were those that are counting down to their leaving dates. At first I took this as a sign that you could only be happy in Fiji when you were on your way out. Eventually I figured out that these people were frantically squeezing in their Fiji list of things to do (aka bucket list – hate that term) in their remaining tenure, resulting in a steady stream of what most people would consider holidays of a lifetime.

Once I realised this, I knew that we needed to make our own Fiji list and, more importantly, start ticking the items off without the pressure of an impending move. At the top of our list was visiting the Yasawas, so at the end of September, we booked a week long Blue Lagoon Cruise. Now, cruising isn't our thing - I strive not to look anything like those sweaty, slightly lost-looking people wandering through the streets of Suva with cruise-branded lanyards around their necks.  Any local rip-off artist that approaches me when a cruise ship is in town gets a “talk to the hand” palm in their face and a don’t-mess-with-me-I-live-here look.  However, the small boutique-boat BLC got rave reviews from friends and Anna, unlike us, was so enamoured with the idea of a cruise that she agreed to share a cabin with us.

Armed with a brand new underwater camera for John, we left Suva on the 7:30am Coral Express bus and by lunchtime we’d entered Fiji’s parallel universe – the well-oiled, international tourist world that is Denarau Island. Clean and slick, we finally saw what the majority of visitors see when they come to Fiji and we liked it. Except for the prices. How much for a Fiji Gold? You’re having a laugh - at our expense.

Beer o'clock on deck.

Because John and I have gradually turned into grumpy old people, we eyed the children running around the dock with our cruise ship name tags on their shirts and grumbled about how we were certain that the website had stated that children were not allowed on the ship. Boarding the ship, we were amazed to find that we were joined by only 14 other passengers on a ship that can hold around 65 passengers. The crew were friendly, the food generous and, despite our cantankerousness, the children delightful. How could you refuse to join a fancy hat competition when a nine year old offers to share her beachcombing hat-adorning treasures with you?

Yasawa-i-Lau caves - coldest I've been in Fiji.

During the next seven days, we stopped at Modriki Island (where Castaway was filmed), visited villages, made new friends, ate five meals a day, stopped smiling for several days due to sunburned lips (I was still happy inside), snorkeled until we were pruney, dived on healthy reefs and generally reveled in some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. I never knew that water came in so many shades of blue.

John took hundred (thousands?) of underwater photographs – mostly close ups. His attention to the art of photographing corals is laudable except that it means that his buddy (usually me) could be kidnapped by pirates or eaten by sharks (or both) without him noticing. On one dive, his dive buddy saw five sharks and he saw none.

The ship tied to a coconut tree in the Blue Lagoon.

One of John's amazing close-ups.

I’d love to say that we’re definitely going to go back to the Yasawas – especially now that we've seen lots of placed that we’d like to go back to. However, we still have other items on our Fiji List to tick off first including the islands of Taveuni, Kadavu and the Lau group, the old capital of Levuka and whitewater rafting on the Navua River. So much to do - fortunately we still have a lot of time.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Cooking with Contraband

I waste an inordinate amount of time productively. Since moving to Fiji, I've expanded my vocabulary playing Words with Friends to include the very useful qi, dox, kine and za. I now have a good working knowledge of how Twitter works to the point that I gave my sister an hour long tutorial on Skype.  I have an active and attractive account on Pinterest (who takes all of those amazing photos?) and have accumulated about a thousand recipes to try some time in the future when I've got time. Oh, wait a minute, I do have time.

Actually, I do cook a lot here. After the initial honeymoon period with Fiji when there were still so many restaurants to try and not be disappointed by we ate out a lot. Eventually, we settled on our two favourites – Maya Dhaba (best butter chicken and naan bread ever) and Bad Dog (sashimi starter is the best thing on the menu). The combination of expanding waistbands and a shrinking bank account meant that cooking again seemed like a good idea. During my early attempts I usually ended up having to shower afterwards because I’d get so sweaty (one particularly memorable occasion included carmelised banana pancakes on a blazing hot morning – what was I thinking?). However, I learned how and where to shop (the market, Lazy Chef, Whaleys), what to avoid (local sausages and minced beef) and to turn the air con on if the temperature outside was already uncomfortable.

Unless it’s tipping it down or the outside atmosphere is sauna-like, barbecuing is an option and we do it a lot. In fact, I've started to wonder if I’m getting medieval northern European lung disease from the amount of particulate matter I've inhaled trying to light slightly damp charcoal with substandard firelighters. Our little back patio is eerily like our little patio in England, except in England we don’t light our patio with Tiki lanterns and the bats flying overhead don’t look capable of carrying off small dogs.

 Alex and Anna demonstrate the correct use of the patio.

Travelling and eating go together like wine and cheese, bread and butter and Fred and Ginger. When I’m in California I head straight for In–n-Out and order a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake, eat Mexican food from taquerias, search for the perfect margarita and eat a lot of hot Italian sausages. In France it’s Breton butter with crunch seasalt crystals smeared thickly on bread. In Fiji, it’s tuna. Tuna steaks on the grill with garlic aioli and grilled tomato salsa, made with mint and fresh coriander (dhania here in Fiji). Raw tuna sliced and served with Japanese rice balls, wasabi, lime and finely diced locally grown chillies and fresh ginger. Leftover tuna made into salad. Tuna, tuna, tuna. We never get sick of it in our attempts to deplete the Pacific of its most delicious fish. We get our tuna from Island Ika, who post what’s in everyday on their Facebook page and, refreshingly from a health and safety perspective, keep their fish on ice. We have to eat a lifetime’s worth of tuna during our stay here as the average lump of tuna that I buy for sashimi at home would cost about a week’s salary in the UK.

My foodie photos will not be on Pinterest any time soon.

Other things that we feel the need to consume a lot of during our stay in Fiji include passionfruit, pineapple, cassava (who would have thought tree root could taste so delicious?) and New Zealand’s Tip Top Cookies and Cream Ice Cream. Local fish and produce are relatively inexpensive as long as you buy in season – during my year here, tomatoes have ranged in price from FJ$1 to FJ$18 a heap. Heaps are the unit of measure in the markets here and literally are heaps of whatever either piled up on the table or in small bowls. It does pay to ask how much things are before you start getting them to fill your bags at the market just in case you end up with a FJ$7.00 red onion like I did.

Imported food, on the other hand, is expensive and reliance on it can lead to bitter disappointment. Mayonnaise, for example. I grew up eating Best Foods mayonnaise, which personally, I think is the best in the world. Some of you may know it as Hellmans since though the two companies merged in 1932 they haven’t got around to unifying their brand names. I was relieved to see Best Foods for sale at Cost u Less when we first arrived, but after a few months there was none on the shelves. At that point, I hadn't learned the finer points of hoarding and paid for it. Antipodean mayonnaise is disgusting. I don’t know what they make it out of, but every brand we tried tasted like salad cream made with machine oil and a large dollop of sugar. We mourned for garlic aioli and tuna salad as did others who lamented to lack of good mayo on the Suva Expat Facebook page. However, we did drop a few pounds.

When we first arrived, we had English visitors, one of whom was incensed that the best condiment in the world, A1 Steak Sauce, had been invented by the Americans. Well, I could write an entire post about Americans and condiments (my neighbour in the UK who inherited all of our condiments joked that he had a special cupboard made just for our mustard). Lo and behold, out shopping the next day I found A1. Anna was instantly enamoured and it went straight to her top ten tastes of all times. Of course, we haven’t seen it since.

My current obsession at the moment is sourdough. September is sourdough month and with that in mind, I thought that I’d see if you could make a successful sourdough starter in Fiji with nothing but rye flour and water. Fijian microbes are notorious for being super-sized. You are advised by people that have been here longer than you and survived with all of their limbs intact that any cut or scratched bit needs regular liberal applications of anti-bacterial cream and that you need to have a low threshold for antibiotic seeking behaviour if you get any sort of lurgy. Well, I can tell you that within 48 hours I had a sourdough that smelled like Newcastle Brewery on a still day bubbling away on my counter.

On the counter is a bowl of the good stuff waiting to be made into sourdough poppy seed pancakes tomorrow morning. I brought the poppy seeds back from Australia in May because I couldn't find any here. I've since been told that poppy seeds are now on a list of things that cannot be brought into the country, presumably because there’s a fear that we might start producing opium. Well, I’m not going to waste my poppy seeds trying to grow them. I’m going to eat them and savour every precious bite.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

My new favourite expression

How could I not have heard the term FoMO (Fear of Missing Out)? I know the FoMO concept intimately, having suffered from it my entire life. It explains quite a lot of my behavioural quirks, like wandering around the house while brushing my teeth in case something else more interesting is going on or appearing at breakfast when we have houseguests, half dressed with wet hair, lest I miss a bit of news that my family members with certainly neglect to tell me later.

Being a FoMOist has its upsides. It’s what allows you to chivvy your companions along while walking around strange cities as you search for a restaurant better than the one you are standing in front of, which means occasionally you stumble on a real gem. It’s what gives you the curiosity to try every strange fruit that you come across in the market despite the fact that, up until you tried a mangosteen two days ago, you haven’t tasted a delicious new fruit since you tried a kiwifruit in 1978. It’s what makes you appear adventurous when what you really are is a perennial worrier, wondering if something bigger, better or more interesting is just out of sight around the theoretical corner.

Strange fruit – mangosteen, where have you been all of my life?

However, I suspect many FoMOists are paralysed with indecision because for every positive decision they make, there are the infinite possibilities that they’ve excluded by making that decision. This is typically demonstrated at restaurants, where FoMOists have a difficult time ordering from a large menu (“if I have the Caesar salad, which I love, I won’t be able to try the flambéed frogs’ legs, which might be delicious!”).

Of course, indecision impacts on bigger life events. For example, if you decide to be a fireman, you have passively decided not to be a butcher, a baker or a brain surgeon among other things. Therefore, I suspect most FoMOists let their lives play out, occasionally making some inexplicable (to themselves and to their friends) monumental decision based on nothing more than the fear that there might be something on the other side of that decision than is more exhilarating than where they happen to be standing at the moment of decision-making. That’s my excuse anyway.

Mind you, there was little opportunity for FoMO on mine and Anna’s recent trip to California because our days were absolutely packed with great things. Alex joined us from the UK and we saw every brother, sister, niece, nephew, brother- and sister-in-law on my side of the family. I also managed to see some of my very oldest friends from my early childhood who had the decency to still look young. Alex and Anna experienced their first US 4th of July (not a particularly popular holiday in the UK), we saw the awesome San Jose Earthquakes-LA Galaxy match at Stanford Stadium, picked berries in Santa Ynez, squeezed in three family birthday parties and went to the beach as many times as possible.

While we were stuffing in as much California culture as we could, John was back in Fiji running the Pacific Science Association Conference and looking after the four kittens that were delivered to our living room by a little stray that we’d been feeding. The conference was a success and the kittens well-adjusted enough to place in good homes. And yes, I do tell John he’s a hero at least a couple of times a week.

The kittens were replaced by the same number of toads soon after they were re-homed.

Back in Fiji, our UK next door neighbours came to visit on their round-the-world adventure. They embraced the Fijian experience whole-heartedly (despite it being so chilly that I had to don a fleece several times), going rafting on the Navua River, walking along the sea wall into Suva for a day’s sight-seeing, going off the rope swing at Colo-i-Suva and learning (and using) basic Fijian words. Their boys are going to be spoiled for life as on their second snorkel off of Naigani, we saw a white-tipped shark, a Ridley’s turtle as well as amazing coral cover. Seriously, there will be no point in them visiting the Caribbean now. On their last night here, we went to our usual, The Bad Dog, to toast them bon voyage with colourful cocktails/mocktails with them in their full bula regalia.

It’s times like that I can ignore my FoMO tendencies because I’m sure that if I were able to peek around the theoretical corner, my little piece of the world would be better than anything I might see on the other side.